I lost 5 year’s worth of photos the other day. It happened a few days ago, when I started hearing an odd grinding sound coming from the hard disk (HDD) while I was using my PC. What I didn’t know then was that HDDs have an effective ‘shelf life’, after which their performance starts degrading. In my case, what appeared to be a mechanical failure very quickly led to the HDD ‘dying’ on me.
At the time, I was confident I could restore all my important files, and especially my precious digital photos, because I did actually do a backup (sometime last year). Unfortunately, as it turns out, I couldn’t find most of my backup CDs. Of the 3 disks I could find, 1 turned out to be corrupted. That one rotten CD happened to contain my only copies of all the photos taken during my college days.
To say I was upset would be putting it mildly. Still, you might as well profit from my sorry experience, so let me offer a few thoughts for your consideration when you’re next backing up your files (with special reference to digital photos).
Until someone figures out how to code data onto diamonds, there are no incorruptible, impervious digital storage mediums. HDDs, CDs and DVDs will all eventually die. Keeping in mind a storage medium’s ‘probable expiry date’ can help you avoid a nasty shock and prepare to replace it when necessary.
Sadly, there’s no real consensus on how long a HDD in a home user environment could realistically be expected to last, though there’s a lot of anecdotal ‘evidence’ and some studies in business environs, such as Google’s 2007 study (here in PDF). Still, a useful rule of thumb would be to expect a HDD to be usable for about 5 years or so, and plan your computer maintenance/upgrades accordingly.
CDs and DVDs, though by far the most popular external storage medium for most consumers, are also more prone to failure, since they can be exposed to more physical damage than an HDD (humidity, direct sunlight, clumsy handling, a frisky cat, etc). Like HDDs, there are no major studies conclusively stating how long they should last in a home environment (though there are informal studies, such as this one from Tech Arp). In fact, with so many variables to be taken into account, the most that can be said for a CD’s or DVD’s shelf life is: It will last a few years, unless it gets damaged or you’re just plain unlucky.
I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a good idea to spot-check my backups from time to time, just to make sure they’re still readable, rather than wait until I need to recover the files. Ideally, backups would be checked for integrity every few months. In the messy, stressed-out real world however, once a year would probably be more realistic. Whatever your personal schedule, this is the time to go through all the files saved to check they can be read, and to replace any storage media that starts acting up.
Though the cost of storage media has been steadily dropping, buying all the necessary storage space can still put a dent in your wallet. Plus, you still have to deal with physically managing and maintaining them. If you don’t have too many photos you need to save, and don’t mind sharing them with others, you might consider trying the following:
Backing up your most important files is good. Making multiple backups is better, if you’re concerned that something might happen to the backups.
How far you take this is really up to you. One of the Quality Assurance analysts in our Response Lab set up multiple hard drives in a RAID array on his home PC, and also has backups on a Network Attached Storage (NAS) system (more about that below); plus he’s contemplating keeping another copy of his important files in an external HDD at the office. 3 backups in 3 different locations, in multiple media types.
OK, so maybe you don’t have to go that far. But having multiple backups in multiple media types in separate locations give you the option of recovering your photos if something happens to the stuff on one medium, or in one location.
As an example, in my case, I originally had my photos saved on 1 HDD and 1 CD – and both went kaput. After enduring the trouble of retrieving my photos from friends, I’ve now upgraded my backup ‘strategy’ to 2 separate HDDs (though both in the same computer), with one for frequent access and one for long-term storage; 2 DVDs (stored safely elsewhere) as a separate long-term storage – and a copy on a USB Flash drive, just in case….
If money is no concern, or you have a lot of data, or you want more features than are offered by free services, it’s time to think of Your Backup Strategy. Figuring out a backup strategy is actually a rather personal task, since it has to take into account:
Since all the above can vary from person to person, the best backup strategy is really whatever works best for you in keeping your stuff safe. Here’s a few last thoughts on the various storage choices available:
And after considering all that, it’s just a matter of seeing what’s right for you, backing up regularly – and hoping you never accidentally lose your data. Or photos.
CC image by: Roman Pinzon-Soto
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